The Trump administration is taking seriously a shocking claim from its enemy in Afghanistan that the Taliban foiled an Islamic State plot to assassinate a senior U.S. diplomat, U.S. officials confirm to The Daily Beast.
Officials said they’re investigating an assertion, made in a recent Taliban video, that the local branch of the so-called Islamic State recruited two men to murder Zalmay Khalilzad, the State Department’s envoy in charge of negotiating peace with the Taliban.
“The U.S. Government takes any potential threat against U.S. personnel seriously,” a State Department spokesperson told The Daily Beast. “U.S. officials are investigating the video.” Afghan government authorities are doing so as well.
Several current and former officials are skeptical about various aspects of the Taliban’s stunning assertion. The video, a purported confession from two blindfolded young men in Taliban custody, claims that elements within the U.S.-backed Afghan government’s National Directorate of Security facilitated the failed plot against Khalilzad. With the NDS known to oppose the Khalilzad-negotiated peace deal with the Taliban, the insurgent group has an incentive to drive a deeper wedge between Washington and Kabul. A former head of the NDS apparently implicated by the video has publicly denied any complicity, calling it a “fake.”
Without expressing any perspective on the plausibility of the assassination claim, a former senior U.S. diplomat noted that Khalilzad “is much more popular with the Taliban than with the Afghan government.” The anxieties around the alleged plot reflect a breakdown in trust between the U.S. government and its Afghan client over the peace process being pursued by the Americans. “Zal is getting close,” the diplomat continued, and people whose interests are threatened by the contemplated departure of the Americans “are upset.”
The assertions in the Taliban video, especially about the NDS’ role in the plot to kill Khalilzad, strike some longtime Afghanistan observers as nakedly propagandistic. “You wouldn’t believe the information ops everyone is playing against each other,” said a retired Special Operations noncommissioned officer with extensive Afghanistan experience. “99 percent is all bullshit.”
While the special ops veteran, who did not want to be quoted by name, thinks it’s absurd that NDS would try to kill Khalilzad, he doesn’t think it’s absurd that the NDS would want to. The veteran is one of many within the military, and the broader security establishment, that considers a deal with the Taliban a spectacular folly, deliberate self-delusion and betrayal of a U.S.-backed government.
“He’s handing the Taliban Kabul on a silver platter, the retired noncommissioned officer said. “The deal is literally helping the Taliban win – more, every day.”
Jason Campbell, who until 2018 was a senior Pentagon Afghanistan policy official, noted the dizzying confluence of interests behind the claims. The Taliban would keep the peace process alive and “show their counterterrorism bona fides,” a central aim of the Americans in any peace deal, said Campbell, an analyst with the RAND Corporation. “This is the fog of the peace process.”
The level of detail in the video, and accounts provided to The Daily Beast by Taliban officials as well as Western diplomats and Afghan government officials, suggest just how dense and menacing that fog has become.
The video, made by the Taliban intelligence operation, was released on Taliban social media accounts June 12. One young man in a white robe and another in a gray shalwar kamiz (traditional Afghan dress) spoke for almost six and a half minutes. In addition to their blindfolds both were handcuffed. In the background, birds could be heard singing, a baby cried, and a goat or goats were bleating.
The Taliban claim that the “confessions” reveal cooperation between the Afghan government security service and the Afghan branch of the so-called Islamic State, and the testimony cites several attacks on well-known political commentators in Kabul over the last several months. All were critical of the government and essentially sympathetic to the Taliban and supportive of the peace negotiations being conducted by Khalilzad.
The first target was a famous ex jihadist and member of the Taliban regime’s foreign ministry staff, Wahid Muzhda, shot dead in November 2019 near his mosque. The second was a journalist who was formerly a Taliban, Muhammad Hasan Haqyar. He had just left a live appearance on the Ariana TV news channel when he was shot, but a bullet missed his heart and he narrowly survived.
There was speculation in Kabul’s diplomatic circles early this year that three former heads of the government’s NDS intelligence service had formed a cell to silence and intimidate pro-Taliban journalists, political leaders, and religious scholars in Afghanistan’s major cities, but there was no proof and the video appears to have been produced to support that conjecture.
The two men making their confession say they were recruited by ISIS in 2018, but then put in contact with a prominent former government intelligence chief, Rahmatullah Nabil—who has vehemently and explicitly denied the allegations, which he characterizes as a part of a plot against him.
In the video, the two putative assassins say they were given Muzhda and Haqyar as targets by a provincial official named Zia ud din and cousin of Rahmatullah Nabeel by the name of Haji Mohammed Ibrahim.
After the two attempted hits, the young assassins supposedly were introduced to former NDS chief Nabil himself, who then ordered his cousin Haji Ibrahim to give them money and accommodations.
Eventually they were told about a person “very dangerous to us” and asked “do you know who this Satan is?” They said they did not. Then they were told, “This person is Khalilzad Bastard. If this Satan is killed then the peace process and agreement with Taliban will be derailed. They told us that Taliban is our common enemy.” They also claim they were old Khalilzad was under surveillance and they should prepare a car bomb and three “martyrdom seekers,” so that, “One person will attack with the car bomb and two others will attack him with explosive vests so that no one shall go alive.”
They staked out the residence of a well-known former jihadist, Hamid Gailani, often visited by Amb. Khalilzad when he is in Kabul. The house is next to that of the European Union ambassador and opposite the Afghan interior ministry. But the hit team waited 10 days and Khalilzad never showed up, according to the video confession.
After that they were ordered to leave Kabul with Zia ud Din and Haji Ibrahim, but they were stopped on the road by the Taliban, who discovered NDS credentials on ud Din and Ibrahim.
That’s where the video account ends.
But Taliban communiques and Taliban sources contacted by The Daily Beast leave no doubt that Zia ud Din and Haji Ibrahim were tortured, interrogated, and finally killed by their captors.
A close relative of Ibrahim told The Daily Beast that Ibrahim and the other three left the Khushal Khan area of Kabul at about 4:00 a.m. on March 23 without telling anyone, including family members, where they were going.
Zia ud Din’s body was found about 100 kilometers northeast of Kabul on April 5. Ibrahim’s was found at the same location on May 20. A photograph released by the Taliban shows the face of Ibrahim’s corpse with what appears to be a recently broken and bloodied nose. The Taliban also posted his NDS gun permit on line.
Was there ever really a plot to kill Khalilzad? The people most clearly implicated are either the terrified prisoners of the Taliban, or dead at their hands.